Mat-Su parents, students move to return books removed from school library shelves as lawsuit continues

People sit at tables during a meeting.
Members of the Mat-Su citizens library advisory committee at a meeting on Aug. 10, 2023 (Screenshot of Radio Free Palmer YouTube)

Students and parents who sued the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District in November over the removal of books from school library shelves are asking a federal court to order the books be returned while the case continues.

The lawsuit stems from the school district’s removal of 56 books last spring, at the Mat-Su School Board’s direction, without any public review. That was after members of the public had raised concerns about the books to individual School Board members, and the school district created a committee to review them.

Northern Justice Project lawyer Savannah Fletcher, who is representing the plaintiffs along with the ACLU of Alaska, filed a request for an injunction Tuesday to have the books returned.

“Libraries are a place of many diverse ideas, and just because some people disagree with them does not mean those books can be removed from everyone’s access,” Fletcher said. “I feel very confident that this is the latest wave of certain folks trying to impose their ideas on others, and our Constitution will continue to stay strong and say that we have a right to freedom of ideas and freedom of speech.”

Mat-Su School District spokesperson Jillian Morrissey issued a brief statement on the motion for an injunction Wednesday.

“The District has just received the Motion for Preliminary Injunction and is reviewing it. The District, through counsel, will respond to the Motion as required by applicable Court rules,” the statement said.

In a response to the initial lawsuit on Dec. 18, the school district’s lawyers wrote in a court filing, “The district denies the Board permanently removed books, or that it violated any students constitutional rights.”

Much of the lawsuit hinges on Pico v. Island Trees Union Free School District, a 1982 Supreme Court case from New York that concluded the school district could not restrict library books because they disagreed with the content. Fletcher noted the similarities in the Mat-Su School District’s actions, including the removal of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five.” 

“I feel pretty confident that many of these books will go through the same end result and be returned to the bookshelves like they were over 40 years ago,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said she expects an answer by mid-February from the court on the motion for the injunction to return the books.

Despite a letter from Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor to school librarians warning of potential felony charges for distributing indecent material to minors, Fletcher said it’s unlikely school librarians will face criminal charges if the books are returned to shelves. 

“I fear that’s a red herring fear tactic that’s trying to silence schools, and librarians and educators from doing their job,” Fletcher said. “It’s really just a misplaced reading of the law by folks who aren’t criminal prosecutors trying to scare librarians from doing their job.”

So far, the Mat-Su School District’s Library Citizens Advisory Committee has read and discussed 16 books, voting to remove four from all school libraries and limiting 10 books to high school libraries only. The School Board has not yet taken any action on the committee’s recommendations.

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Tim Rockey is the producer of Alaska News Nightly and covers education for Alaska Public Media. Reach him attrockey@alaskapublic.orgor 907-550-8487. Read more about Timhere

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